Loons

Nothing quite says wild like the wail, tremolo and yodel of a common loon.

These fish-eating birds are powerful swimmers that can dive up to 200 feet deep and stay underwater for as long as five minutes, according to John Cooley, Jr., senior biologist at the Loon Preservation Committee (LPC).

But when it comes to flying, they have a tough time getting up there, requiring about a quarter mile of water for takeoff. Unlike other waterfowl, they don’t fly south. They winter just offshore in the Atlantic Ocean when the ponds and lakes ice in.

Loons are a good indicator of water quality, since they require clear water to see their piscatorial prey. These red-eyed birds have different wardrobes for summer and winter. During the summer they are black and white, during the winter they appear mottled gray.

The common loon is an uncommon bird in New Hampshire with only 315 territorial pairs. But that’s up from 309 last year.

Their population is on the increase and has been increasing slowly over the past 40 years LPC has been tracking the birds, Cooley said. The population is still south of carrying capacity, however.

“We’re putting out more nest rafts and nesting signs,” he said.

It takes a long time for the loon population to increase due to low reproduction. Loons don’t mate until they are 6 years old on average. And they have small broods of only one or two chicks per year. Their nesting habits make the nest vulnerable to human disturbance like motorboat wakes.

Because of their low reproduction, the loss of adults can be devastating to the population. One of the major threats to adult loons is lead poisoning, according to the LPC, which says lead poisoning from ingested lead fishing tackle is the leading known cause of death in adult loons in the Granite State. The committee says lead poisoning accounted for 44 percent of documented deaths from 1989 to 2017.

Like all fowl, loons use small stones in their crop to help process and digest their food. They typically get these small stones from the bottoms of the state’s lakes and ponds. Often, they also ingest lead sinkers lost by anglers. Ingesting a lead sinker causes a slow and painful death.

In 1991, the federal government banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting to protect all waterfowl from lead poisoning. To protect the loon population in this state, New Hampshire banned the sale and use of lead sinkers and jigs of certain sizes.

In 2000, the state led the way by outlawing the use of lead fishing sinkers weighing 1 ounce or less and lead jigs less than 1 inch along the biggest axis in freshwater lakes and ponds. In 2005, the state expanded that law to include all freshwater, ending the exemption for rivers and streams.

And in 2016, New Hampshire amended the regulations to ban jigs weighing 1 ounce or less instead of 1 inch or less.

Fishing enthusiasts now find nonlead fishing tackle made of metals like tungsten, bismuth-tin and steel on the shelves of the state’s outdoor stores. Not all anglers are happy with the change, however.

One of the biggest complaints is the investment many anglers made to fill their tackle boxes with effective gear that was suddenly made illegal. Some are reluctant to stop using gear they paid good money to purchase.

Some may even be unaware that what they have in their tackle boxes has been outlawed. Enforcement isn’t effective. Conservation officers aren’t searching tackle boxes; the ban relies on education.

While many trash collection sites in the state now take lead fishing gear for recycling, there has been little incentive for doing so. To address this issue further, the LPC, New Hampshire Fish and Game and a number of sporting goods retailers have partnered in a lead tackle buy-back program. Funding for the buyback came from the LPC and private donors.

Under the Lead Poisoning Reduction Initiative, anglers can exchange 1 ounce or more of the banned lead tackle – sinkers and jigs weighing one ounce or less – for a $10 merchandise voucher redeemable at participating stores. This year there were eight sports shops participating, most located in the Lakes Region and the North Country.

Sadly, there were none in Southwestern New Hampshire. That may change in the future, according to Cooley. He expects the program will continue and expand.

“It looks like it went well,” he said. “I was shopping in the tackle store in Meredith and he had a big bag of lead tackle to hand off.”

The initiative started in March and the program ended Sept. 30.

“We are in the process of collecting that tackle now,” LPC Director Harry S. Vogel said. While the number of pieces of lead fishing tackle collected wasn’t yet available, Vogel said he expects the program was a success based on the previous pilot program that collected 4,700 pieces of lead fishing tackle.

“Our main purpose now is to get to Grandpa’s old tacklebox in the garage or cellar and remove the lead that might someday find its way into the environment,” he added.

Will the program expand to the Monadnock Region? Vogel says he expects it will, based on continuing fundraising.

“We’ll continue to try to bring more tackle shops on board,” he said. “We’d be interested in hearing from any that want to become involved.”

For more information, visit The Loon Preservation Committee online at loon.org or learn about lead-free fishing and tackle disposal sites at fishleadfree.org.